Ask, and a helpful mission statement will be given you.

At the moment, I’m up to my eyeballs in policy work for the board that I chair. A trio of us are slogging away on ends policies – those few pithy statements that, in the words of John Carver (our governance guru), proclaim the differences the organization makes, for which beneficiaries, and at what cost. We’re several iterations in and still struggling to spin specificity from a mission statement broad enough to make the world the organization’s oyster.  

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So you know why a FastCompany piece about mission statements – or more accurately, mission questions – grabbed my attention. The author had me at his description of these organizational mainstays as mostly “banal pronouncements” or “debatable assertions . . . that don’t offer much help in trying to gauge whether a company [organization]is actually living up to a larger goal or purpose.”

If like me, you’ve been there and done that, raise your hand. Then read on.

MISSION BY THE QUESTION

Before you declare, ask. That’s the advice of journalist Warren Berger. In his words, “questions . . . can provide a reality check on whether or not a business [organization] is staying true to what it stands for and aims to achieve.”

But not any old questions. Berger provides a useful five for arriving at a truly helpful mission statement. These are:

  1. Why are we here in the first place? Over time, even a “single-cell” organization can lose sight of the purpose for which it was created. Mission drift happens to the best of causes.
  2. What does the world need most that we are uniquely able to provide? Think Jim Collins’ “fly wheel” or Chris Zook’s “core.” In faith-based settings, we refer to “call” or “vocation.”
  3. What are we willing to sacrifice? No organization can be all things to all people or solve all problems. Brave leaders make tough choices among competing goods.
  4. What matters more than money? Organizational leaders (including boards) focus obsessively about short-term results, sacrificing long-term viability to the immediate. Mission fulfilled with economic vitality includes attention to this year’s bottom line, and beyond.
  5. Are we all on the mission together? Although “mission statements are usually handed down from on high, frequently cobbled together by an [administrative team],” it’s better to involve a broad coalition of organizational stakeholders. This “gets people to more firmly and more deeply believe in what they are doing.”

Figuring out what you want your organization to accomplish is a continual search. Questions are the means to the answer(s) you seek. So ask, and a helpful mission statement will be given to you. In that beginning, you’ll find your ends.

Oh, if only the board with which I work had started there.

For more on the importance of good questions:

Four tough questions behind truth-filled tales of organizational impact

The role of edgy questions in strategic planning

Small questions won’t get you big answers

What's your take on this topic?

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